In the United States, a striking imbalance permeates the criminal justice system, casting a light on profound racial disparities within our society. Despite making up only 13% of the nation’s population, Black Americans are overrepresented in prisons, accounting for 38% of the population behind bars. This population is followed by Hispanics in prison, comprising 15%. This statistical dissonance underscores a fundamental issue, raising questions about fairness, equity, and the pervasive impact of racism within the corridors of justice.
Data tells us that Black Americans are imprisoned at a rate almost five times the rate of white Americans, according to a 2021 report from The Sentencing Project. And Hispanic men are almost four times as likely to go to prison at some point in their lives as non-Hispanic white males. Seven states have a disparity of Black Americans in prison that is larger than 9 to 1: California, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.
Why Are So Many People In Prison?
The number of people in prison overall has exploded since 1980. The rate of incarceration is about eight times higher than it was before 1970. Between 1980 and 2008, this number in the United States increased significantly, from 221 to 762 for every 100,000 people. Not only has the percentage risen, but the administration of jail sentences is inconsistent for everyone in the population. This issue has contributed to the rise of individuals behind bars.
Unequal Treatment Under the Law
There are many factors behind the makeup of our prisons. Indeed, one of the biggest is a discrepancy in how bail is set, and sentencing is given to people of different races. Consider two individuals, each with a criminal record of a class C misdemeanor and each charged with minor drug possession and harassment. The only difference is one of these individuals is Black, and one is White. Data tells us that these two people will face unequal treatment in the legal system.
The Black individual will likely have a higher bail set and receive harsher punishment, like jail time. The White individual is more likely to receive a lower bail or simply probation rather than jail time.
Studies from the Pew Trust in 2023 show that Black people convicted of a crime are given higher bail despite having lower average incomes. Naturally, with higher bail more challenging to meet, the Black convicted person will end up spending more time in jail before the trial. This, in turn, leads to a higher chance of being found guilty. Differences in criminal behavior related to race, along with unfair choices made in the legal system, show that African Americans and other groups face enormous challenges.
Causes of Disparity
Looking at who’s affected most, it’s clear that race and money play a significant role in who ends up in our prisons. Black people have always been put in jail more than white people, especially since the late 1800s. As black people started to be treated more equally in society, the difference in jail rates changed, too. By the 1960s, during the civil rights movement, the number of Black people in jail compared to white people became a lot higher – about seven times more likely. The lack of education is also linked to being in jail. Most people in jail didn’t finish high school, and as more people got put in jail, jobs for people without a lot of education got worse.
Factors like being poor, having unequal access to education, generational poverty, an absent or incarcerated parent, or having past criminal records all contribute to criminal behavior and, thus, to the chance of being put behind bars.
Incarceration Affects Young Males Most
Around 90 percent of the prison population is male, and younger males in their twenties and thirties are most likely to end up behind bars. These are critical years for young adults since they should be spent finishing school, attending college, building adult life skills, getting a job, and launching a family. When these years are instead spent disconnected from society and opportunities, the effect is long-lasting. In addition, women are affected as they remain in their social groups to play dual roles of income earner as well as the sole caretaker of children. This all has an effect that ripples through families and communities. And this can lead to a cycle of crime, absent fathers, broken families, and further poverty leading to crime.
Prisons as a Profit Model
Mass incarceration costs a ton of money but doesn’t make the public much safer. Since the modern private prison system took hold in 1984, with governments paying prison corporations to “contract out” the work of incarceration, the costs have skyrocketed. Over the past few decades, prison maintenance costs have ballooned to nearly $182 billion yearly, yet offer the same level of safety before the 1980s.
The businesses that run prisons and those who profit from them have a strong motivation to keep the population locked up. It’s estimated that prison profits amount to about $4 billion annually. What’s worse is these private prisons aren’t as safe for inmates, and they don’t aid in their rehabilitation, while they still cost more than ever.
There is a lot to the business model of private prisons and their involvement with government contracts. Still, it is key to remember that underneath it all, the goal of prison as a punishment is historically two-fold: to keep dangerous criminals out of the public and to rehabilitate criminals so they can reintegrate and enter public life as productive citizens. And it’s clear that private prisons are failing at that goal.
Based on a U.S. Department of Justice study of 24 states, the recidivism rate was 82% over the decade from 2008 through 2018. If most of the inmates return to prison after release, then rehabilitation is not working in private prisons. It bears asking, then, if rehabilitation is not the goal, then what is? A system that keeps people behind bars while prison corporations profit?
Private Prisons Depend on Government Contracts
Prison companies have found many ways to charge clients. They charge for drug tests, phone calls, and healthcare. Governments sign multi-year contracts with these companies, so they must be kept at capacity, and a certain number of people must be incarcerated for the system to work. This contract model is a significant barrier to changing the rules and influencing laws concerning jails, sentencing, and immigration.
Looking Ahead at Solutions: Strategies for Change
From the data, it’s impossible to miss the fact that racial disparity within the United States criminal justice system has created a deep-rooted imbalance. This raises questions about equity, justice, and the far-reaching impact of systemic racism. Addressing and solving this issue demands comprehensive solutions to counteract the systemic inequalities in the legal framework and the justice system.
To mitigate racial disparities in prisons, a holistic approach is needed. Reforms regarding bail and sentencing within the judicial system need immediate attention. Bail amounts based on racial lines perpetuate a cycle of inequality within the legal system. Implementing equitable and unbiased practices in setting bail can undoubtedly reduce the disproportionate impact on individuals of color. It can also help ensure a fair trial, a fundamental Constitutional right of all Americans.
Beyond bail, revisiting and reevaluating mandatory sentencing laws, especially those that have disproportionately affected individuals from minority communities, is crucial. These reforms can promote fairness and reduce the likelihood of harsh sentences based on race.
Access to Education
Second, it’s clear that Education and socioeconomic factors contribute significantly to the racial imbalance in incarceration rates. The lack of equal educational opportunities and generational poverty often lead to criminal behavior, increasing the chances of imprisonment. Addressing these disparities requires changes at the state and city levels, including improving access to quality education and socioeconomic opportunities. Initiatives focusing on educational equity, job creation, and community support programs can assist in breaking the cycle and reducing the likelihood of individuals, particularly from marginalized communities, entering the criminal justice system in the first place.
Shift the Motivation Away from Money
Reformation of the private prison system is needed to rectify imprisonment rate inequality. The profit-driven private prison model has created a conflict of interest, prioritizing financial gain over the goal of rehabilitation and public safety. Shifting the focus from profit to effective rehabilitation programs within correctional facilities is imperative. Evaluating and restructuring government contracts with private prisons and eliminating the notion of keeping high incarceration rates is the only solution. Our society must work toward rehabilitation and reintegration, which are essential steps to rectify this imbalance.
Time In Prison Should Be Purposeful
Time spent behind bars should focus on intentional reeducation. The focus needs to be on education, learning, and mental health. Not only job-based skills education but also social and emotional education needs to take place. Learning how to communicate, contribute to a positive social group, and negotiate and form healthy relationships among peers are all skills prisons need to offer support. Suppose an individual’s mental health and social skills are not addressed during time behind bars. In that case, it is nearly impossible to expect them to take on positive, healthy behaviors that have not been practiced once released to live in society.
What Can We Do?
The comprehensive solution to eliminate racial disparities in the criminal justice system demands a collective effort from everyone who cares. It will require policy reforms, societal changes, and a commitment to fostering a fair and just legal framework. Our legal sentencing system will have to change to prioritize rehabilitation and equitable treatment for all individuals, regardless of race.
Taking action towards these goals can pave the way for a more equitable and just society. Unified together, we can all become advocates who take action and play a part in eradicating the enduring racial disparities entrenched within the U.S. criminal justice system. We can all work toward a system that genuinely promotes justice for all.
Here are some organizations to get involved with that promote reforming our criminal justice system:
Unity: The Foundation For Societal Change
At HUES BOA, part of our mission is to be more than a fashion brand; we exist to work toward unity and to break systemic walls that traditionally may have divided us. Things like our criminal justice system have been a source of division for a long time. For the HUES BOA brand, we see working toward unity as a real solution to injustices that keep us divided.
That is why we want to address and wrestle with some of the problematic issues in our society that affect people: all minorities, people from different socio-economic levels, different backgrounds, races, and religions. We don’t have a system that represents justice for all until it is just for all; until justice, laws, representation, and sentencing are just for all.
Even as we strive to be a fashion brand for all that represents diversity, our mission at its core is unity. We strongly believe that unifying diverse individuals in our humanity will turn the tide toward justice for all.
Why We Launched Hues BOA
As a black-owned fashion and apparel brand, we know this blog is heavy. But we can’t innovate without understanding where we are today as a society. The unique self-expression of diverse groups and cultures fuels Hues BOA, so Our clothes = Our voice in addressing social issues and taking actions that change current events.
Read more about why we Launched Hues BOA here:
Or, learn about our humble beginnings here:
Even better, learn how to support other black-owned businesses here: